Sid Meier's Civilization series has been, for my money, the be-all end-all of strategy games for as long as they've been coming out. And they've been coming out for a while, with 2016 marking the 25th anniversary of the franchise. Now Civilization VI is here on PC, and the 4X strategy game has never played better.
If you've never stayed up till 3 in the morning mashing the "next turn" button, the Civ games all have one thing in common. They're all turn-based, 4X ("explore, expand, exploit and exterminate") strategy games where you, playing as a great historical leader, lead your people from prehistory to global domination. Or just keep starting new games over and over.
The devil, of course, is in the details. Every leader and civilization comes with different unique bonuses, there's a handful of different paths to victory and the maps are randomly generated with each new game. Civ VI is the product of 25 years of refinement of this formula, and it absolutely shows.
New Civ games have an adoption rate worse than new versions of Windows. The common wisdom is that a newly released version of Civ won't be as good as the previous version with all its expansions. Civ VI bucks this trend by hanging onto all of the best features from V (and its expansions), while introducing a host of new ones.
The home front
The most obvious change is that your cities, previously confined to one tile on the hex-based map, are now spread out over multiple spaces. That not only leads to a balancing act over things like choosing whether to harvest natural resources or use the space for developments like economic districts, it means your cities just look more impressive as they expand.
Civ VI feels more dynamic. It's moved away from a static progression style for your civics, government and research where once you picked an option, it was there to build on for the rest of the game. VI lets you do things like gear your social policies toward producing a more effective military, and after the completely justified war, shift focus to rebuilding your cities and keeping your post-war populace happy.
Speaking of war, you can now also use casus belli -- justified reasons for conflict with enemy Civs -- to massively reduce the diplomatic penalty for warmongering usually tacked on to declarations of war.
Progression on the huge scientific research tree is now no longer entirely determined by an abstract "science" production value, and you can get contextual bonuses based on how you play. Kill an enemy with slings, get a bonus to discovering Archery.
The breadth of the new civic system, the expanded cities, deeper diplomacy and research tree make your choices feel more personal, important and specialised. You feel like your Civ is your own, not like you're racing to the end of the tech tree for the umpteenth time.
All 20 Civs in the game come with their own unique abilities and units. Each Civ leader's unique abilities funnel them toward certain victory conditions based on their actual historical agendas. Saladin leads Arabia with a strong science and religion focus, where the aggressively expansionist Victoria grants England military bonuses while on different continents. They play completely differently when you're at the helm, but more importantly, they seem like more distinct players when they're controlled by AI.
City States and Great People also got a bit of an overhaul, offering specific bonuses rather than being tied to generic traits. It might sound like it's made Civ VI more predictable, and in a way it has. But it's introducing that predictability in very welcome ways. Enemy Civs aren't likely to launch surprise attacks without at least some warning, you'll be able to work out how to stay on the good side of AI, you'll know how to shoot for specific bonuses. You have more control over your destiny.
Then there's the little details. The game, back with a more cartoony art style, looks gorgeous. The unexplored areas of the map look just like that -- a map awaiting a budding explorer to fill in the details.
Sean Bean reads out the now ubiquitous flavour text. I don't need to comment on the quality; that sentence should speak for itself. The music is beautifully scored, evolving as you move through the epochs of history.
The new interface means you don't need to go digging through two or three screens for important info about your cities. It just feels smoother, like it was more deliberately considered and crafted. Civ V was a master's game, Civ VI wants that information accessible for anyone to master it.
It's not without issues -- the primary one being the old Civ bugbear of AI on higher difficulty simply cheating. They're given overwhelming numerical bonuses rather than being made more cunning, which has been the case for pretty much every Civ in recent memory. You're going to need to really earn those Deity difficulty wins. It's still got a steep learning curve. Even players returning to the series will want to tick the "New to Civ VI" box for the early tooltips and learning exactly how to map our your city to maximise the bonuses won't come easily. But that's half the fun.
Civilization VI, and Civ in general, is not a game for everyone. Dedicating dozens of hours to learning the intricacies of the game's politics, research trees, optimal ways to grow cities and other minutiae is a big ask. But if you're a fan of the franchise, or you're curious enough to dip your toe in the water, Civ VI is the best that strategy gaming has to offer.